The old, blue-eyed woman in the bed
is calling down snow. Her heart is failing,
and her eyes are two birds in a pale sky.
Through the window she can see a tree

twinkling with lights on the banking
beyond the parking lot. Lawns are still green
from unseasonable weather. Snow
will put things right; and, sure enough,

by four darkness carries in the first flakes.
Chatter, hall lights, and the rattle of walkers
spill through her doorway as she lies there—
ten miles (half a world) of ocean

between her and her home island.
She looks out from a bed the size of a dinghy.
Beyond the lit tree, beyond town, open water
accepts snow silently and, farther out,

the woods behind her house receive the snow
with a faint ticking of flakes striking needles
and dry leaves—a sound you would not believe
unless you've held your breath and heard it.

"Snow" by Elizabeth Tibbetts, from In the Well. © Bluestem Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

Today is St. Patrick's Day, the feast day of Patrick, a Christian missionary and one of the patron saints of Ireland. Patrick was born in Roman Britain around the year 387; he was captured by raiders and taken to Ireland when he was 16. Patrick worked as a herdsman for six years before escaping and making his way back to his family. He followed his father and grandfather into the church and at some point returned to Ireland as a missionary. St. Patrick's Day is a national holiday in Ireland, but it is celebrated around the world. In the United States, countless cities have their own parades and festivities. Chicagoans dye their river green every March 17th, and New York City's parade attracts more than 2 million spectators. St. Patrick's Day is a Christian festival celebrated by the Catholic Church, and it always occurs during Lent. When St. Patrick's Day is on a Friday, certain bishops grant a release from the traditional Lent Friday no-meat observance. This release is called the "corned-beef indult."

It's the birthday of playwright Paul (Eliot) Green, born near Lillington, North Carolina (1894). Green grew up on a farm, where he worked in the fields alongside black laborers, whose stories inspired many of his dramas. He began writing one-act plays while he was a student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The No 'Count Boy (1924) won the Bealsco Cup in New York City and established Green's place as an important playwright outside of the South. His Broadway play In Abraham's Bosom (1926) won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Despite his success in New York, he disliked what he labeled the commercial theater of the city, choosing instead to produce something he called "symphonic dramas" — pieces combing drama with dance, music, poetry, and folklore, and intended for the outdoors. (Green was a self-taught violinist who composed all the music for his pieces.) In the 1930s, Paul Green had a stint in Hollywood, where he wrote films for Clark Gable, Greer Garson, and Bette Davis, among others. Green wrote what Bette Davis considered her favorite line: "I'd like to kiss you, but I just washed my hair."

Today in 1910, Camp Fire Girls was founded. This national youth service and leadership organization was designed as a sister organization to Boy Scouts of America. Camp Fire Girls was the first nonsectarian and interracial organization available to girls in the United States. The group has been co-educational since 1975, and is now called Camp Fire USA.

It's the birthday of writer Frank B. Gilbreth, (books by this author) born in Plainfield, New Jersey (1911). His parents were two of America's most renowned engineers; they studied the breakdown of work into fundamental elements, a branch of science now referred to as "work simplification." Their work in efficiency is the fodder for Gilbreth's most famous book, Cheaper by the Dozen (1949), which he co-wrote with his sister Ernestine, in which a couple applies energy-saving techniques to parenting. Cheaper by the Dozen was a best seller in 1949, and Frank and Ernestine received the French International Humor Award in 1950.

On this day in 1901, Vincent Van Gogh's paintings were shown at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris. It was the first major show for the artist, who had committed suicide 11 years earlier, having sold only one painting in his lifetime. The retrospective featured 71 paintings, all with Van Gogh's characteristic bright colors and textured brush strokes. The exhibition made a splash on the Parisian art scene and helped pave the way for galleries to exhibit unconventional artists like Gaugin and Matisse in the coming years. The widely attended Bernheim-Jeune show prompted painter Maurice de Vlaminck to famously declare that Van Gogh meant more to him than his own father. Van Gogh said, "It is better to be high-spirited even though one makes more mistakes, than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent."

Today in 1941, the National Gallery of Art opened in Washington, D.C., thanks to the funding and support of collector Andrew W. Mellon. Mellon was the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and ambassador to Britain. He sponsored the construction of the National Gallery and donated his impressive personal art collection — hundreds of paintings, which included artists such as Botticelli, Rembrandt, and Raphael.

Today is the birthday of fiction writer Penelope Lively, (books by this author) born in Cairo, Egypt (1933). Lively writes for both adults and children. She was educated at home, reading books shipped over from England and visiting the pyramids every week. At age 12, Lively was sent to boarding school in England, a place she says her family "called home, but as far as I was concerned was not home at all — a mysterious, grey, wet place." She studied history at Oxford and began writing soon afterward; her first book, Astercote (1970), was for children. Since then she has written 26 more books for children and young adults, including The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973) and The Cat, the Crow, and the Banyan Tree (1994). A Stitch in Time (1976) won the Whitbread Children's Book Award. Lively has written 14 novels for adults, including the Booker Prize winner Moon Tiger (1987) and her most recent, Consequences (2007).

When I look at childhood, I see the yellow rosebush
Grandma planted near her door, the gravel
Beneath the bicycle tires, and the new legs pumping
As we raced along; and the roads that invited us
West—only a mile from home the land began to rise.

We tried those wind chargers. My father
Was open to any new idea, and one day
A thousand sheep—starving—arrived in cattle cars
From Montana—almost free. We took four
Hundred. How thin they were! Some lived for years.

Many rooms were cold at night, and the hired men
Didn't have much of a life. Sometimes they'd just
I remember my father throwing dead ewes over
The edge of the gravel pit. It was efficient. There
Was work to do, but no one learned how to say

"A Farm in Western Minnesota" by Robert Bly, from Morning Poems. © Harper Collins, 1997. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1915, American novelist Richard Condon was born in Manhattan. (books by this author) In his lifetime, Condon wrote 26 novels and two works of nonfiction, including the best sellers The Manchurian Candidate (1959), Winter Kills (1979), and Prizzi's Honor (1982). His novels often focused on the themes of government conspiracy and abuse of power.

Condon earned very low grades in high school, which ruled out the possibility of a college education. Instead, he began working a string of jobs that included elevator operator, hotel clerk, waiter on a cruise ship, advertising copywriter, and studio press agent. His career as a press agent included a stint with Walt Disney Productions, working on the movies Dumbo, Fantasia, and Pinocchio. While a press agent, Condon was required to see all of the rival studios' pictures — eight to 10 a week. He estimated that he saw around 10,000 movies in his 27 years as a press agent.

Condon's work as a press agent led to a career in writing for two reasons. The first was that, after spending years being required to chat with and constantly entertain actors, producers, and directors, he felt antisocial, and the writer's isolated life appealed to him. Secondly, watching so many movies heightened his interest in storytelling. In a 1994 interview with Texas Monthly, Condon said, "That was back in the golden years of Hollywood, when the stories had beginnings, middles, and ends. The characters were clearly established. The storylines were clear. The entrances, the exits, everything was clear." He said viewing those films gave him "an unconscious grounding in storytelling."

At the age of 42, Condon wrote his first novel, The Oldest Confession (1958), about an art heist. The book was a success, and in 1959, Condon went on to publish his second novel, The Manchurian Candidate. That book, about a Communist plot to brainwash an American soldier and turn him into an assassin, became Condon's most famous novel. It was made into a movie starring Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, and Angela Lansbury (the movie was remade in 2004). The Manchurian Candidate contains Condon's favorite themes: government conspiracy and abuse of power. These themes would appear in later books, such as his critically praised 1974 novel, Winter Kills, a fictionalized account of the Kennedy assassination.

Condon also wrote novels about organized crime. Those novels focused on the Prizzi family. Prizzi's Honor (1982), in particular, was a huge popular and critical success, and Condon took his place as one of the country's most famous writers of organized crime novels.

In his interview with Texas Monthly, Condon said, "I think the most important part of storytelling is tension. It's the constant tension of suspense that in a sense mirrors life, because nobody knows what's going to happen three hours from now."

Today is the birthday of American novelist John Updike, (books by this author) born in Shillington, Pennsylvania in 1932. Updike is known for writing about middle-class, middle-aged, ordinary Americans. He is also known for writing about the theme of adultery. His most popular books feature a character named Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a man who is afraid of responsibility, aging, and his tedious job, and who suffers marital problems. The last two novels in Updike's "Rabbit" series, Rabbit is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), earned Updike a number of awards including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Book Award, and two respective Pulitzer Prizes. Of winning the prizes for Rabbit is Rich, Updike said, "After a long period of prizelessness, winning the National Book Award and some other major fiction prizes of the year felt like a step up in my position as an American writer. I felt that not only was I being given a prize, but that a prize was being given to the idea of trying to write a novel about a more-or-less average person in a more-or-less average household. That vindicated one of my articles of faith since my beginnings as a writer: that mundane daily life in peacetime is interesting enough to serve as the stuff of fiction."

On this day in 1990, the largest art theft in U.S. history took place at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. A pair of thieves, disguised as Boston police officers and reportedly wearing fake moustaches, gained entrance to the museum shortly after one o'clock a.m. by telling the on-duty security guards that they were responding to a disturbance within the compound. The security guards, against museum regulations, granted the thieves access to the museum. The thieves proceeded to steal 13 pieces of art, including three Rembrandt paintings (one of which was the artist's only seascape), one Vermeer painting (of the only 35 or so known to be in existence), five drawings by Edgar Degas, and a painting by Edouard Manet. The thieves took no care with the art, often ripping pieces out of their frames. The total worth of the stolen art is estimated to be as high as $300 million. Although the Gardner Museum has offered a $5 million reward for the safe return of the art, none of the pieces have yet been recovered.

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine
beauty Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff. —As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

"Carmel Point" by Robinson Jeffers, from The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. © Stanford University Press, 1989. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

It is the birthday of legendary African-American comedienne Jackie "Moms" Mabley, born Loretta Mary Aiken (1894). Mabley was born in Brevard, North Carolina. One of her favorite personas was the "dirty old lady who liked younger men." She enjoyed poking fun at older men, particularly how they tried to wield power over women, and how they lost their sexual abilities. Mabley would say, "Ain't nothing an old man can do for me but bring me a message from a younger man."

On this day in 1953, the first televised Academy Awards ceremony aired. Bob Hope hosted the ceremony, and the stars in attendance included the first two women to win Oscars, Janet Gaynor and Mary Pickford. Cecil B. DeMille's spectacle drama The Greatest Show on Earth won Best Picture. The Oscar telecast was a success: It attracted the largest single audience to that date in television's five-year history.

It is the birthday of Russian humorist, dramatist, and novelist Nikolai Gogol, (books by this author) born in 1809 in Sorochinsk, a town in what is now Ukraine.

Gogol wrote regularly for periodicals. He wrote about his childhood in Ukraine, and some of his writings featured the devils, witches, and demons of Ukrainian folklore. These writings led to his book Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka — a book that delighted the Russian literary world and made Gogol an overnight celebrity.

Gogol went on to write more stories, as well as a play and a novel. His play The Government Inspector, first performed in 1836, was a satire aimed at the corrupt bureaucracy of the czar. His novel Dead Souls (1842) was written while Gogol was living in Rome. It was another satire and is considered to be Gogol's masterpiece. Gogol also wrote two famous stories, "The Nose (1836)," about a nose that disappears off the face of a collegiate assessor, is found by a barber, and then parades all around St. Petersburg, and "The Overcoat (1842)," about a man who acquires an overcoat and then dies of a broken heart when it is stolen. Gogol once wrote of his comic works, "The merriment observed in my early works corresponded to a certain spiritual need. I was subject to fits of melancholy which I could not even explain to myself and which may have originated in my poor health. To distract myself, I imagined every conceivable kind of funny story. I dreamed up droll characters and figures out of thin air and purposely placed them in the most comical circumstances."

The writer Dostoyevsky once famously remarked, "We have all come out from under Gogol's overcoat."

Today is the birthday of American novelist Philip Roth, (books by this author) born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933. Roth's novels often feature smart, middle-class, fiercely honest Jewish characters. Perhaps Roth's best-known character is Nathan Zuckerman, who appears in nine of his novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral (1997 ) and his most recent novel, Exit Ghost (2007). Zuckerman, like Roth, is a novelist, and Roth has noted that the books featuring Zuckerman are like "hypothetical autobiographies" — ideas of what Roth might be doing. However, Roth has said that Exit Ghost will be the final appearance of Nathan Zuckerman. In an interview with The New Yorker after the book's release, Roth said of Zuckerman's departure, "Will I miss him? No. I'm curious to see who and what will replace him."

On this day in 1962, Bob Dylan released his self-titled debut album. The album featured only two of Dylan's own songs, "Song to Woody" (for his idol Woody Guthrie) and "Talkin' New York." The rest of the album consisted of Dylan singing covers of traditional and blues songs. John Hammond, who produced the album, spent less than $500 to make it. The album did eventually go gold in 1973 — 11 years after its release — and is now generally considered to be a fine debut.

'Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two and two, in red and blue and green,
Grey-headed beadles walk'd before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul's they like Thames' waters flow.

O what a multitude they seem'd, these flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own.
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands.

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of Heaven among.
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor;
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

"Holy Thursday: 'Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean " by William Blake. Public Domain.

Today is the first day of spring, the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. The Earth is tilted on its axis, so as it travels around the Sun each pole is sometimes tilted towards the Sun and sometimes tilted away. It is this tilt that causes the seasons, as well as the shortening and lengthening of daylight hours. On this day, the north and south poles are equally distant from the sun, so we will have almost exactly the same amount of daytime as nighttime.

Emily Dickinson said, "A little Madness in the Spring / Is wholesome even for the King."

On this day in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was published. (books by this author) Beecher Stowe, an abolitionist, wrote the novel shortly after the Fugitive Slave Law — a law requiring that free states help capture fugitive slaves — was passed. The law was deeply upsetting to Beecher Stowe, and she wrote in a letter to her sister that she would use her literary talents "to make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is."

It is the birthday of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, (books by this author) born in 1828 in Skien, Norway. Ibsen's parents were relatively well off until his father's business failed. This brought hardships to the family and made Ibsen's father a deeply bitter man. Subsequently, the effect of poverty on families became one of the themes Ibsen would explore in his plays.

When Ibsen was 17, he got a domestic servant pregnant. This event also inspired themes that would recur in his plays: youthful sins, secrets, and mistaken paternity.

Ibsen went to Oslo to enroll at the university; but he failed his entrance exams, so instead, he became an assistant stage manager at the Norwegian Theater at Bergen. It was his job to compose and produce an original drama each year. This position helped him learn how to revise material and create dramatic interest for the audience and actors. On the other hand, the job did not allow him to write what he wanted to; instead, he had to write dramatizations of Viking sagas and Norse myths.

In 1864, Ibsen was awarded a stipend by the Norwegian government. The next 27 years he spent living away from Norway, writing plays that would transform the theater. These plays included Peer Gynt (1867), A Doll's House (1879), Ghosts (1881), An Enemy of the People (1882), The Wild Duck (1884), and Hedda Gabler (1890).

Ibsen returned to Norway in 1891, where he wrote his final four plays. By this time, his plays had changed the landscape of theater. They featured only one or two locations instead of multiple sets, five or six characters instead of an excessive cast, heroes that were middle- or working-class rather than kings or queens, and complicated protagonists who were neither all good nor all evil.

It is the birthday of beloved children's television host Fred Rogers, born in 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

In 1962, Rogers earned a divinity degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and he was ordained by the Presbyterian Church. Rogers continued his work in television, appearing on camera for the first time in 1963 on his new show, Misterogers, which was aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. This show would evolve into Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which was seen nationally for the first time in 1968.

The show, which began with Rogers singing "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" and changing into sneakers and a cardigan, would go on to become the longest-running show on PBS. The program featured themes like feeling good about yourself, getting along with others, and handling fears. Rogers wrote more than 200 songs for the show. The last episode was taped in December 2000.

It's noisy here. The kids run around, screaming, their mothers slap them and
they cry. I have the bottom bunk, I hang a blanket from the bed above me for
privacy. In the middle of the night it's finally quiet. I lie awake and think
about goals. Sheryl, the worker, says I need some. She says What do you want
Rita? and I say peace and quiet, maybe someplace sunnier than here. I say I'd
like to have a dog. A big one, a retriever or shepherd with long soft fur. What
else? she says. I remember my dad's garden, how I used to like sitting with
him while he weeded, putting my toes in the dirt. He grew tomatoes, corn, peas.
There was a rosebush, too, once he let me pick a big rose and there was a spider
in it, I got scared and shook it and the petals went all over me and he laughed.
He showed me how to put my thumb over the hoze nozzle so it sprayed. Sheryl
says I could garden. I think about the coleus Jimmy and I had, how I would take
cuttings, put them in water and they'd grow more flowers. But then they all
died. At night I listen to everybody sleep around me, some people snoring, some
starting to say something and then stopping. It's pitch-dark behind the
blanket. I try to see it sunny, a yard with a dog lying down under a tree. I
try to smell warm tomatoes. Curl my toes in the sheets. Try to sleep.

"Shelter" by Kim Addonizio, from Jimmy & Rita. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 1997. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Good Friday, observed as the anniversary of Jesus' death on the cross. Good Friday is not a federal holiday in the United States, but many Christians observe it by fasting and attending church services. Christians in other countries keep Good Friday in different ways. In the Philippines, for example, a passion play depicting Jesus' walk to the cross is re-enacted by participants who whip themselves as a form of penitence. Some even volunteer to be nailed to crosses in San Fernando in the Pampanga province. Jesus' crucifixion is described in the Gospel of John in the Bible.

Today is the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, born on this day in 1685 in Eisenach, Germany. Bach's baroque compositions are some of the most famous in the world, although at the time his work was considered old-fashioned. Bach grew up in a family of musicians and learned the violin from his father at an early age. He sang in the choir of St. George's Church, where his father was the organist. Bach would later become the choirmaster of a similar boys' choir at his church in Leipzig.

Bach was 10 years old when his parents died, and he went to live with his older brother Johann Christoph in Ohrdruf. His brother was the organist at St. Michael's Church and taught Bach the harpsichord. When he was 17, Bach graduated from St. Michael's School in Lüneburg and accepted a position as a violinist in the chamber orchestra of Duke Johann Ernst in Weimar. The organ, however, was always his favorite instrument, and Bach spent hours practicing on the church organ in Weimar. He became so good that when he demonstrated the new organ at a church in Arnstadt a year later, the church offered him a permanent position.

Unfortunately, Bach's relationship with his choir at Arnstadt was less than ideal — after the performance of his first church cantata on Easter 1704, he asked to be released from the responsibility of conducting the choir. The church administration replied that maybe the friction was his fault, and the whole thing culminated in a street fight where he apparently called one of his orchestra members a "nanny-goat bassoonist."

Bach was not the most considerate employee. He asked for a month off to travel to Lübeck (a 200-mile walk), where the famous organist Dietrich Buxtehude played at St. Mary's Church. Bach loved Buxtehude's music so much that he stayed an extra three months without letting anyone in Arnstadt know. When Buxtehude retired and Bach was offered his position, however, the young organist turned it down. If he had accepted, he would have been expected to marry one of Buxtehude's daughters, all of whom were much older than he.

Instead, Bach married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach, after accepting the organist position at the Church of St. Blaise in Mühlhausen in 1707. Although Mühlhausen as a city had a deeper musical appreciation than Arnstadt, Bach still ran into trouble with his employer. The pastor of St. Blaise, Reverend Frohne, was a strict proponent of Lutheran Pietism, a movement that stripped liturgy (and liturgical music) of all frills and complications. Bach's growing experimentation in the other direction caused him to look for another position.

Returning to Weimar, Bach became the court organist of Duke Wilhelm Ernst. His residence there from 1708-1717 produced some of Bach's most famous works, including Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor. Bach's reputation as an expert organist grew, and his compositions moved away from reliance on common forms into the realm of intricate, ingenious tonal design. Bach was especially skilled at counterpoint, an aspect of baroque music that involves two or more melodies playing at the same time.

After accepting a better-paying job in Cöthen in 1717, Bach produced mainly instrumental music for the chamber orchestra there. His wife Maria Barbara died, leaving him with seven children. Bach chose a young, 20-year-old woman, Anna Magdalena Wülken, for his second wife and married her in 1721. Anna Magdalena went on to bear him 13 children. Bach supplied his children with harpsichord instruction books of his own invention, many of which are considered masterpieces today.

When Prince Leopold of Cöthen married a woman who disapproved of spending so much time and money on music, Bach began looking for another position once more. He became the choirmaster at St. Thomas' Church in Leipzig in 1723 and remained there until his death in 1750. In Leipzig, for the first time, Bach's talents as an organist were not required as much as his skill as a composer. Here Bach composed the majority of his choral music, including The Passion According to St. Matthew (1729), Mass in B Minor (1733), and the Christmas Oratorio (1734).

Four of Bach's sons went on to be great musicians themselves: Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christoph, and Johann Christian.

Alan Rich once said of Johann Sebastian Bach: "No composer in history ... has been so widely jazzed up, watered down, electrified and otherwise transmogrified, debated, and admired as this German provincial."

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.
Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure — if it is a pleasure —
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one —
a painting of a woman on the wall,

a bowl of tangerines on the table —
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,

rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia,

when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend

under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandana

sitting in a small green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.

That is something I am unlikely
ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,

even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame.

"Fishing On The Susquehanna In July" by Billy Collins, from Picnic, Lightning. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of two famous musical composers, Stephen Sondheim born in New York City (1930) and Andrew Lloyd Webber born in London (1948). Sondheim wrote the lyrics to West Side Story (1957) and the music and lyrics to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and Into the Woods (1987). Lloyd Webber wrote the music for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1968), Jesus Christ, Superstar (1971), Evita (1978), The Phantom of the Opera (1986), Sunset Boulevard (1993), and Cats (1981).

Both Sondheim and Lloyd Webber were interested in music at an early age. Sondheim grew up next door to the Oscar Hammerstein II family, and Lloyd Webber's father was the director of the London College of Music. Each has developed his own style of musical — Sondheim is famous for his complex lyrics and dark plots, while Lloyd Webber's name is synonymous with huge, operatic scores and experimentation with style and time signature. Each has won multiple Tony Awards for Best Musical Score — Sondheim in 1971, 1972, and 1973, and Lloyd Webber in 1980, 1982, and 1988. Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera was made into a movie in 2004, and a movie version of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd was released last year.

Today is the birthday of poet Billy Collins, (books by this author) born in New York in 1941. Collins is both a critically acclaimed and popular poet, a unique combination in the world of modern poetry. Collins began writing poems at age 12. He devoured all the poetry he read, especially the contemporary poems in Poetry magazine. In an interview, Collins explained, "I remember reading a poem by Thom Gunn about Elvis Presley, and that was a real mindblower because I didn't know you could write poems about Elvis Presley. I thought there was poetry — what you read in class — and then when you left class there was Elvis. I didn't see them together until I read that poem."

Collins began selling his poems to Rolling Stone for $35 a pop in the 1970s. He married Diane Olbright in 1977 and published his first book of poems, Pokerface, that year, but it wasn't until the publication of Questions About Angels in 1991 that he began drawing critical attention. His other major poetry collections are The Apple that Astonished Paris (1988), The Art of Drowning (1995), Picnic, Lightning (1998), Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001), Nine Horses: Poems (2002), and The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems (2005). Collins' style is light, humorous, and fond of extended metaphor. He uses mundane situations as diving boards into the larger philosophical questions of life. His poem "Forgetfulness" starts this way:

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Collins said, "Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong."

Once, years after your death, I dreamt
you were alive and that I'd found you
living once more in the old apartment.
But I had taken a woman up there
to make love to in the empty rooms.
I was angry at you who'd borne and loved me
and because of whom I believe in heaven.
I regretted your return from the dead
and said to myself almost bitterly,
"For godsakes, what was the big rush,
couldn't she wait one more day?"

And just so daily somewhere Messiah
is shunned like a beggar at the door because
someone has something he wants to finish
or just something better to do, something
he prefers not to put off forever
—some little pleasure so deeply wished
that Heaven's coming has to seem bad luck
or worse, God's intruding selfishness!
But you always turned Messiah away
with a penny and a cake for his trouble
—because wash had to be done, because
who could let dinner boil over and burn,
because everything had to be festive for
your husband, your daughters, your son.

"The Dream" by Irving Feldman, from Collected Poems 1954-2004. © Schocken Books, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Easter Sunday, an important holiday in Christianity. It celebrates the resurrection of Jesus following his death on the cross. Easter is calculated differently on Eastern and Western calendars; the Eastern Orthodox celebration will occur on April 27 this year.

Exactly 265 years ago today, George Frederic Handel's oratorio Messiah premiered in London (1743). Handel was born Georg Frederich Handel in Halle, Germany, in 1685. In 1712, he relocated permanently to England after living in Hamburg and Hanover, Germany, and in Italy. His main claim to fame was as an opera composer, and in 1719 he co-founded the Royal Academy of Music in London, through which he tried to introduce English theatergoers to Italian opera. When that goal more or less failed, Handel turned to writing oratorios in the English baroque style. Messiah was written in just three weeks, from August 22 to September 12, 1741 — an amazingly short time for an epic piece of music.

Spanish painter Juan Gris was born José Victoriano González on this day in Madrid (1887). Gris studied engineering in Madrid but soon abandoned it for art. He moved to Paris in 1906 and rented the apartment right next to Pablo Picasso's. Picasso and collaborator Georges Braque greatly influenced Gris, and he exhibited artwork in the Cubist exhibition in 1912.

Today is the birthday of writer Kim Stanley Robinson, (books by this author) born in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1952. Robinson is best known for his hard science fiction, beginning with the Orange County trilogy. The books aren't a trilogy in the traditional sense of one story carried onward in time, but rather represent three different alternate futures for California. The first book in the series, The Wild Shore, was Robinson's first novel, published in 1984. In this California, nuclear war has come and gone, and a young boy must find his place in a world that is both exhilarating and dangerous. The second book, The Gold Coast (1988), is a bleak dystopian projection of an overcrowded, drug-riddled California, while Pacific Edge (1990) describes a practical utopian society in a small town called El Modena.

In the 1980s, Robinson began exploring the topic of Mars and what it might be like after human colonization. The Mars Trilogy of Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1994), and Blue Mars (1996) follows a group of 100 scientists who settle on the planet, which is itself one of the most interesting characters. Robinson is known for his attention to detail, especially in his settings. He has written stories set on Pluto and Mercury, in the past and the future, on the slopes of the Himalayas and on the ice of Antarctica. He frequently highlights the importance of ecological conservation in his alternate realities. His most recent trilogy of Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007) centers on Earth after a climate breakdown caused by global warming.

Robinson thinks of science fiction as a particularly American form. "America [itself] is an experiment," he said, "a mixture, future- and progress-oriented, and out of all of it pops this literature of what happens next. It's like jazz; it has European precursors, but we understand America through science fiction; we all feel we're in a giant science fiction novel that we all write together."



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